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Hurricane Katrina Was a Nightmare for Inmates in New Orleans

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, we revisited the horrific story of the inmates who were stuck in the hellish Orleans Parish Prison.

Michael Patrick Welch

Illustrations by Alex Gamsu Jenkins

On Saturday, August 27, 2005, two days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, Dan Bright was locked inside Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) on what he calls "bull-crap charges." He had been exonerated just a few months earlier, when it was determined that he had been falsely imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. But Bright says that on Saturday, while helping board up his mother's house, he was arrested for trespassing and wound up in central lockup on misdemeanor charges.

Sunday was deceptively peaceful, as Katrina whirled closer and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the first-ever mandatory evacuation of the city. Governor Kathleen Blanco added that the storm was "very serious," and "we need to get as many people out as possible." In spite of this, Sheriff Marlin Gusman announced, "The prisoners will stay where they belong." He had generators, he said, and a loyal staff, so the city's inmates would hang tight.

The grouping of buildings that comprise Orleans Parish Prison render it something of a crown jewel in what some call the world's incarceration capital—Louisiana—and at the time of Katrina, one of America's biggest jails. Because OPP earns roughly $25 a day per prisoner from the state, city cops don't do a whole lot of catch-and-release. In August 2005, the majority of OPP's roughly 6,800 prisoners hadn't been convicted of a serious crime. They were people who couldn't pay traffic tickets, drunk tourists who'd pissed on Bourbon Street, kids caught smoking pot. The robust jail and regressive criminal justice policies made for a perfect storm for what was to come.

Katrina soon made extra clear the many drawbacks of over-enthusiastically caging so many people at once. "It took us six hours to evacuate about 300 prisoners from St. Bernard out to OPP the night before Katrina hit," recalls one guard who worked in the jail at the time of the hurricane and asked to remain anonymous since he is still employed by the city's corrections system. "All of our inmates were put in one big gymnasium at OPP—we'd thought we'd have cells, or structure. We [guards] were stationed on the outside of the gymnasium, unarmed, cause no one can bring weapons into OPP."

When Katrina hit on Monday, August 29, OPP's generators failed. All the lights went out, and the under-ventilated jail became stifling. "When the storm hit, it sounded like the building was gonna come down," the guard recalls.

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"My attorneys and the bail bondsmen were all leaving the city. Then the electricity went off and the water started rising," says Bright, who was being kept inside OPP's Templeton building. With no power, the electric cell doors remained stubbornly shut as the facility filled with water.

"The prisoners thought we were all planning to leave them to die locked in there, and I can't say I blamed them for thinking that."

Bright and his cellmate, a diabetic man, kicked at their own door for two or three hours. "It's on a hinge that slides back and forth," Bright recalls. "You can knock it off its hinge and then slide out the bottom of the cell. And we're doing all this in the dark—all you see is the water." Lucky for Bright, he'd been lodged him on the second floor. Below him the terrified prisoners began to riot in the sewage-tainted floodwaters.

"Our gym was on the ground floor, and the inmates were getting agitated," the guard tells VICE. "Food and all services had been discontinued. There was no AC, no ventilation."

Downstairs, the water rose from the prisoners' ankles, to knees, to waists. Though they experienced the hurricane in separate OPP buildings, both Dan Bright and the guard say that by Monday night, most OPP officials had fled the scene to save themselves. "The prisoners thought we were all planning to leave them to die locked in there," said the guard, "and I can't say I blamed them for thinking that."

Around that time, Sherriff Gusman realized his mistake in failing to release the prisoners and began to send rescue teams back into the jail. By Tuesday morning, the toxic water was chest-level or higher.

"At some point it got high enough they got angry and started banging on the doors... breaking down the first set of security doors to get out," the guard remembers. "We real fast went out and locked the second set of security doors and stood outside of them with no weapons. All we had were our voices, tellin 'em, 'Don't come out!' I started seeing chips of concrete breaking out of the wall in the overhangs—turns out the inmates inside were using a bed to beat a hole though the cinderblock wall."

Bright and his cellmate pounded their way out, then struggled to save a few others. But their effort ultimately amounted to nothing. "The deputies had left the building, but they were outside with boats. They hadn't been comin' in because there was no power, it was dark...they was afraid to come in," Bright claims. "But when you got out they were grabbing you and putting you on these boats."

There are few documented reports of the conditions Bright and the guard described. But a damning 2006 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, interviewed more than 1,000 people who were at OPP during those days and attest to horrifying circumstances. Raphael Schwartz, a 26-year-old Missouri man arrested for public intoxication on August 27, said he was held in a cell with no ventilation and nothing to eat or drink for four days. Renard Reed, a guard at OPP's psychiatric ward, reported being locked into the ward to prevent his desertion, and then being ordered to the roof with a shotgun and told to shoot anyone trying to leave the flooded buildings. Reed remained stranded at the prison long after the prisoners were evacuated. Ashley George, a 13-year-old girl housed in OPP's Youth Center, said she was moved to an adult male holding area where she spent days in water up to her neck.

In response, Gusman said that, "None of it was true... Don't rely on crackheads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is." He would also later claim that no one died escaping OPP.

There are no official reports on inmate deaths during Katrina, but Bright says the Sheriff is a bonafide liar. "I'm lookin at the dead bodies! I seen a guy catch a heart attack and drown," he says. Likewise, the guard describes Gusman's claim as "bullshit."

"There were definitely deaths at that prison," he says. "I don't know how they covered that up. I didn't believe in conspiracy theories before, but now I do." The Orleans Parish Sheriff's office did not return requests for comment on this story.

One of very few high-ground options—the elevated, hell-hot Broad Street overpass—is where the guard says boats dropped about 3,500 inmates, to be watched over by 200 to 300 police officers, beginning on Wednesday August 31. (Other inmates were sent elsewhere.)

"They had dogs and everything to keep us sitting on the hard concrete on the bridge for four days. Ninety-five degrees with no water," Bright says. Bright says his cellmate, who helped kick open the door, suffered a diabetic stroke on the hot asphalt. A report from Human Rights Watch, which interviewed over 1,000 inmates evacuated from OPP, suggests Bright's experience was not unique.

"After four days, they figured out how to get a bus to the prisoners. They had to climb down a scaffolding onto a bus to Hunt Correctional Facility," recalls the guard, who remained trapped up on the interstate for a couple more days before being rescued and reunited with his family.

On Saturday, September 4, Dan Bright was brought to Elayn Hunt Correction Facility in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, where the horror continued. "After the bridge, they brought us out in the middle of this football field for another five days and five nights. [Guards] were throwing sandwiches over the gates, and if you didn't get one, you just didn't," Bright remembers. He also claims that the guards, believing he was still locked up for murder charges, kept him in solitary confinement 24-hours-a-day and fed through a hatch in his isolated cell. "And when I kept trying to tell these idiots [guards] I'm not on death row anymore, they'd grab me and throw me against the wall."

In a very lucky break, one of the attorneys who'd helped exonerate Bright happened to move to Alexandria to start her own firm. "She came to Hunt jail for humanitarian reasons, to see if anyone was being mistreated, and she recognized my name on the list," Bright says. "Once she saw my name she pulled me out. I told her what was going on."

Bright became one of the lucky ones to even meet a judge. "Once they bring me to court I get escorted with four patrol cars, heavily-armed with shotguns, machine guns, handguns, they all lined up around the court," Bright claims. "I'd never heard of this in New Orleans; you can't bring a gun into New Orleans courtrooms, but...they figured I'm on death row."

Eventually, Bright says, jail officials admitted, "There might be a mixup in my paperwork."

Bright says after suffering such an emotionally trying experience, "you start to ask yourself, Why not suppress that? If I continued to dwell on it I would go crazy."

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In 2012, with the US Department of Justice listed as a co-plaintiff, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Katie Schwartzmann sued OPP on behalf of thousands of the prisoners. The suit was meant to address the total lack of an evacuation plan, but also sought "to fix ongoing unconstitutional conditions at the jail, particularly safety and security issues, especially for men, women, and kids with special mental health needs," according to Schwartzmann, who has continued her work on the issue as co-director of the New Orleans branch of Chicago's Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. She won her case, and the resulting 46-page federal consent decree against OPP, enacted in June 2013, requires changes to almost every aspect of the facility: increased staffing and training, better mental health facilities, improved food and sanitation, revision of prisoner grievance process, and much more.

Two Ohio tourists, arrested in New Orleans on public drunkenness charges two days before Katrina and jailed for more than a month, were awarded $650,000 for false imprisonment and Chief Deputy William Hunter's "deliberate indifference" to the men's constitutional rights to call an attorney or relative. But besides that, Schwartzmann admits there has been precious little justice for the individual prisoners who survived Gusman's lethal mistakes. "I am unaware of any successful cases," she says, "I do think cases were filed by prisoners representing themselves, and that there was at least one suit by an attorney, but I am unaware of any that were successful."

Nor has the consent decree been a cure-all. "It's been slower going that we'd hoped, there's still a long ways to go," admits Schwartzmann, who says OPP has "taken some steps forward."

The guard we spoke to agrees OPP is changing for the better. "I think the officers left have more respect, and a better report with the inmates and the facility [since Katrina]. The deputies and officers are more conscious now, which I don't think has to do with Katrina so much as technology, and being watched—bad apples make front-page news now. Plus, new employees go through psych evaluation. It's a more strenuous hiring process and if you manage to make it through that, if you're not in it to help people and you just like the authority, you're gonna get weeded out."

"I think everybody learned lessons in Katrina and I believe if there were another storm, decisions would be made differently and plans would be executed differently." - Katie Schwartzmann

Still, you'd have a hard time convincing Dan Bright, who is currently staying in the Lower 9th Ward while a writer is working on a book about his tumultuous life. He revisited New Orleans's jail about a year ago on further misdemeanor charges, and did not agree that OPP is changing for the better.

"They tore that Templeton building down and [in the meantime] they put a lot tents. I went back in for misdemeanor charges and I was in our tent city. Guys living in tents."

Although the tent city makes the place look like a refugee camp, construction on a new $145 million, 1,438-bed consolidated OPP building is finally set to wrap up this fall. The Times-Picayune reported last year that Gusman did purchase four new backup generators for the prison, and in June he promised The Advocate that he would be ready for another Katrina. His office would now theoretically evacuate all of OPP by bus 60 hours prior to the landfall of any hurricane category 2 or greater. In the case of a category 1 hurricane or a tropical storm, Gusman said the jail staff would likely relocate inmates out of its most vulnerable areas, including the remaining tents.

In conjunction with other parish prisons, he said, the Orleans Sheriff's Office would bus inmates to three or more separate state Department of Corrections facilities north of Interstate 10. Inmates would now enjoy a mobile, solar-powered booking facility that would help track them with bar-coded armbands.

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"I think everybody learned lessons in Katrina and I believe if there were another storm, decisions would be made differently and plans would be executed differently," says Schwartzmann. "One thing to remember is how big OPP was at the time of Katrina. This incarceration binge we're on [is tough to sustain]. The bigger the prison system, the harder it is to run."

Schwartzmann explains that when she filed the class action suit in 2012, there were 3,300 prisoners in the jail. Now, "that number has dropped because the city has been working to reduce its incarceration numbers. It has adopted policies such as citations for marijuana offenses, refusal to hold prisoners on out of parish warrants, and implementation of the Pretrial Services Program. Policy changes have driven down our incarceration numbers. And now we're down to 1,800 people in that jail, and hopefully they'll all be in one facility soon."

Bright now tours the world, telling his frustrating life story. While Mayor Mitch Landrieu uses the flood's anniversary to tout all the city's improvements in these past ten years, Bright says, "New Orleans is the worst city I have been in, man."

Bright tries not to think about it too much, or about what happened during Katrina. "But it always be in the back my mind yeah," he admits. "Every time I pass by that jail in that area I think about it. Any time I am on the interstate out of the town, yeah, I think about it a lot and I have to hurry up and block it back out. You just block it out and keep pushing forward.

"If I looked backwards," he reiterates, "I would go crazy."

See more of Alex Gamsu Jenkins's illustrations on Instagram.

Follow Michael Patrick Welch on Twitter.

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